Last week workers set out to defend their rights in two places: Italy, and the city of Voronezh in central European Russia. In their significance for Russia, the disorders in Voronezh were comparable to the impact the general strike had on Italy.
The protests in Italy were without precedent. First came a demonstration by three million people in the streets of Rome, and then a strike by twenty million. Fausto Bertinotti, the leader of the Party of Communist Refoundation (not to be confused with the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (KPRF) of Zyuganov and Co), stated that with these events the â€œloneliness of the workerâ€ had come to an end.
Even earlier, workers had struck and demonstrated. But earlier, everyone had known that the efforts of the strikers and demonstrators were doomed. Successive governments acted on the principle, â€œthe dog barks, and the caravan moves on.â€
Meanwhile, the workers who were suffering more than anyone from the reforms remained in a minority. In essence, Berlusconiâ€™s reforms are the same as Grefâ€™s program in Russia â€“ a new labour code, a new pension system, and the abolition of the last remnants of social security. The logic is simple: the majority of Italians earn enough to be able somehow to cope with all this, and the poorest third of the population can simply be forgotten.
This time, however, the industrial proletariat were joined by the middle class, radically altering the situation. Even while lacking a majority in parliament, the protesters sensed that they represented a majority in society. In Russia the middle class makes up 15 per cent of the population at most, but the authors of the â€œGref planâ€ had no special doubts about the course they had chosen.
In Russia it is just as easy to ignore the majority of citizens as it is to ignore the minority in Italy. But since the disorders in Voronezh on April 11, the Russian government has decided to discuss the consequences of the municipal services reform which it has already initiated. It would have been better to discuss these problems before making the decision, but for the past ten years ministers have been firmly convinced that they can conduct any experiments on their own people with impunity.
Whatever happens, no-one will speak out. Consequently, whether an approach is correct or not is best determined by trying it out on living people.
Voronezh is indeed the ideal place for an experiment. According to all the parameters, it is an average Russian provincial centre. At least, this is how it rates in terms of the sociological criteria. If the disturbances had happened somewhere in Saratov, they would probably not have caused the leadership such anxiety.
Moreover, the leadership in Voronezh is firmly aligned with the Kremlin. After Putinâ€™s rise to power, the earlier provincial chiefs were ousted as â€œpro-communistâ€, and replaced with model â€œcentristsâ€. The economy of the province is not in a particularly bad state.
Unlike the situation in many regions, agriculture is developing satisfactorily (an advantage here is the rich soil). Industry has revived to a degree on the basis of the expanded domestic market. On the whole, Voronezh provides a model for the Russia of the future.
Even in a Russia like this, however, pensioners and the poor cannot hand over 80 per cent of their incomes in rent for an apartment. Before the reform was launched, people discovered, no system of subsidies for poor residents had been organised.
Most importantly, it was far from clear how such subsidies could work at all without consuming all the gains which the reform would otherwise bring the state. Naturally, all this could easily have been seen in advance. What could not have been predicted was the capacity of the â€œhuman materialâ€ for riot and mayhem.
In the event, the riot was not especially terrifying. Representatives of the KPRF and of the official trade unions who had brought out a crowd for an inoffensive ritual demonstration unexpectedly lost control over it. People started demanding to meet with the cityâ€™s mayor, clearly intending to beat him up.
The most active of them tried to organise a blockade of the administration, and engaged in scuffles with the police. The crowd consisted mainly of elderly folk, and did not present any special threat.
But the very possibility of a riot in the â€œmodel cityâ€ shook the leadership not only in Voronezh, but in Moscow as well. A still more dangerous outcome of the demonstration was a decision to mount a boycott of municipal charges. This initiative was delightedly taken up not only by participants in the protest, but also by ordinary loyal citizens happy to find a better use for their money.
As well as the government, the losers in Voronezh included the official trade unions and the Zyuganovite communists. The latter are thus in jeopardy as well. The Voronezh events have put them between the hammer and the anvil. Previously, their demonstrations frightened no-one, and even helped to â€œlet off steamâ€ in society.
But if the KPRF calls demonstrations which it is incapable of controlling, the Kremlin has every reason to be alarmed and angry, and the party leaders are petrified of the Kremlinâ€™s wrath. On the other hand, the KPRF cannot avoid calling people onto the streets. May 1, the day for ritual parades, is drawing near.
Then, as ill luck would have it, the television shows footage of the Italian strikes and of marches by many thousands of people. The Italians are protesting at things that Russians have swallowed without a murmur: a new labour code, and the destruction of the social security system.
Russian citizens have the excuse that whatever happens, they have no intention of obeying any new laws or paying any money; instead, they will get on with their own lives, on which neither the state nor even the private sector is able to exert much influence. If worst comes to worst, there is always the last, truly popular resort: to go out onto a square and give the nearest person in uniform a smack in the mouth.
It could be said that the symbolic significance of the Voronezh riot has turned out to be far greater than its actual extent, and that the governmentâ€™s reaction to it was destined merely to pour oil on the flames.
People understand perfectly that if the state immediately starts trying to justify itself, muttering something about compensation, that means it is unsure of itself, and that still more pressure needs to be piled on. If the authorities again give way, revenge can be taken on them for everything from the Gaidar reforms and the shelling of the parliament in 1993, to the â€œBloody Sundayâ€ of 1905 and serfdom.
Unlike the usual situation, the May Day celebrations this year seem likely to prove interesting. Most interesting will be the part when it emerges once again that in Russia, a crowd that engages in scuffles with the police can achieve far more than all parliamentary oppositions taken together.